Vietnam's long war ended 25 years ago, on April 30, 1975. Like a passerby staring at the wreckage of a road accident, I watched the fall of Saigon on television in Connecticut with my new family. Like millions of Americans, I was mesmerized by the collapse of a country where half-a-million American soldiers fought and 50,000 died.
I was lucky. Barely twelve, I left Saigon a month before its fall with an American officer whom I had befriended in an army hospital, where my mother and I volunteered. That was 1968, the year of the Tet Offensive. We brought him rice porridge, chocolate eclairs, tamarind candy. He spoke French with me. As he lay bandaged, I told stories that made him laugh. Seven years later, as North Vietnamese tanks crossed the DMZ, he returned and adopted me, taking me out several months before my parents made their own escape.
From the safety of our living room we watched as crowds of Vietnamese forced their way into the guarded US compounds. Helicopters skittered on the Embassy's rooftop. This was ‘Operation Frequent Wind,' code-name for America's evacuation from Saigon. There was an exodus by air, towards the Seventh Fleet patrolling the South China Sea; an exodus by sea saw waves of barges, fishing boats and other makeshift vessels. More than 100,000 Vietnamese fled in April and May of 1975 alone, a number swelling to 2 million in the years after.
Wars are often incomprehensible to those who live through them. The beginning; the end; the beginning of the end: these are historians' questions. Those who survived the war in Vietnam and fled because we were suddenly on history's losing side, grappled with questions of forgetting, of how to live an unremembered life – unremembered until an anniversary like this one. April 30: the Day of Liberation as it is known in Communist Vietnam; the Day of National Loss, as Vietnam's exiles call it.